Researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Department of Natural Resources have captured nearly 300 white-tailed deer in northern Wisconsin in recent weeks for studies on buck survival rates, predator impacts on fawns and the deer's impact on habitat.
These are the largest deer research projects in Wisconsin history. Their estimated $2 million cost is covered by the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act. That's money the federal government collects in excise taxes on guns, ammo and archery equipment and distributes to state wildlife agencies for conservation work.
The studies are taking place near Winter in Sawyer County and Navarino in Shawano County, with more than 400 "citizen-biologists" signed up to help. The deer are caught primarily in large box traps, but 66 also were captured by a helicopter before repeated mechanical failures forced it from the program.
In all, about 80 adult does, 70 adult bucks and 70 buck fawns will be fitted with radio transmitter collars so researchers and volunteers can monitor their movements. Another 80 adult does, 70 adult bucks and 70 buck fawns will carry ear ID tags.
The buck mortality study, scheduled to end in 2016, should make DNR deer estimates more accurate. That's great, but let's concede the agency's estimates have long been well within biology's 20 percent variation standard.
The other study, scheduled to end in 2013, will examine fawn death rates and the impacts of predators, habitat and weather on fawn survival. That's great, too. It's important to document the impact of wolves, coyotes, bobcats and black bears on fawns.
But to truly understand the most limiting factor on northern deer, we should spend more effort assessing our aging forests and documenting the whitetail's overbrowsing of Northwoods habitats the past 25 years. After all, many hunters can't identify quality northern deer habitat as well as they identify grouse haunts or pheasant cover.
Most deer hunters hunker where they've always hunted, oblivious to the habitat's decline. They think whitetails will return to their poor habitat and prosper if only the DNR could perfectly calculate their numbers.
Unfortunately, deer don't thrive in large, maturing forests of birch, spruce, balsam and maple. And the DNR can't pour deer seeds on barren forest understories and watch whitetails sprout like Chia pets. Even if they could, deer flee sparse cover and abandon poor food.
The UW and DNR hope their studies improve our understanding of the whitetail's needs and challenges. That's why they encourage volunteers to help. The more people experiencing deer science firsthand, the better everyone understands the real challenges.
Maybe. But who keeps dancing when the music stops? A decade ago, thousands of hunters took part in Deer 2000 to forever solve these woes. We spent $1.2 million for the findings and soon shelved them.
Therefore, let's applaud the hundreds signed up for the current research, but let's make this an endless effort to involve citizen-biologists. According to Keith Warnke, the DNR's former deer ecologist, the state hopes volunteers will continue to trap and monitor deer each winter long after these two studies conclude. Over time, their findings would provide valuable insight into Northwoods herds.
Great. But one hopes the DNR also will expand its lesser-known research into "distance sampling" to further fine-tune herd estimates. The DNR is using aerial surveys for this project, so including volunteers is difficult.
Maybe the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has an idea. It's conducting distance-sampling research on the ground with handheld thermal-imaging cameras. So far, its resulting deer estimates meet the 20 percent variation standard.
The TWRA includes a citizen-biologist in each three-person team for this nighttime work, and some "volunteers" are vocal critics of the agency's deer program. The agency rewards their belly-aching with on-the-job training to improve their understanding of deer biology.
Once these critics realize science isn't a government conspiracy, they share their enlightenment near and far. Now that's turning problems into opportunities. After all, there's no greater spokesman than a converted fanatic.
And with deer management, the supply of potential converts never ends.
Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.